There are two elements to pace that you need to be aware of. There’s the sensation of pace and there’s contextual pace.
If I put you in a vehicle travelling at 1000 mph, then you will feel you are moving quickly based on how it feels to you personally.
If I tell you the journey you’re on is to another planet 10 million light years away, then 1000 mph doesn’t feel so quick after all.
This is true in story terms too. It’s possible to create the sensation of moving quickly, but to get a true sense of pace you need to know where it is you’re going.
That’s not to say you should always have a flight plan for your reader, detailing everything ahead of time. Sometimes not knowing where a character is going is important to a story. But understanding how this affects the pace, and what you can do about it, can prove very helpful.
The easiest way to speed things up is to rush through it.
Jack climbed out of the window and scrambled up the drain pipe to the roof. He jumped the gap between buildings and then ran down the fire escape.
This can be an effective way to get through a scene quickly but as you can see it isn’t always clear what’s going on or why, and reducing the scene to its basic elements can strip away tension. The lack of detail speeds things up but it also takes stuff away.
It’s hard to immerse the reader in the scenario without details, but adding in details slows things down. So how do you create the sensation of pace without gutting the scene?
One solution is to use strong, dynamic verbs.
If you change ‘He ran through the door’ to ‘He burst through the door’, even though both indicate fast movement, the second one ups the ante.
But if you change ‘He spent the night wondering what to do about Jane’ to ‘He spent the night consumed by what to do about Jane’ this also has a similar effect. He’s still lying in bed in both cases, but ‘consumed’ creates a greater sense of movement and activity than ‘wondering’.
By changing ‘afraid’ to ‘shrank back in fear’ or ‘hidden’ to ‘locked away’ the implication of things moving creates a sensation of pace.
This is why sometimes you read a passage in a story where nothing much happens but it still feels engaging and active; but when you do the same thing people complain it’s boring and slow.
What those passages have that might not be immediately obvious is well chosen verbs that give the impression that the character is progressing through the narrative, even if all they’re doing is sitting on a porch thinking about stuff.
So if you have a scene that’s dragging, before you strip it down to the bare essentials, try replacing a few verbs with ones that suggest more movement and activity.
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